- - Tuesday, February 9, 2016

THUNDER AND FLAMES: AMERICANS IN THE CRUCIBLE OF COMBAT, 1917-1918

By Edward G. Lengel

University Press of Kansas, $39.95, 470 pages

In a decision that history declares was perceptively wise, President Woodrow Wilson kept the United States out of World War I until a string of outrageously dumb decisions by Germany — notably unrestricted submarine warfare — left him little choice but to enter the hostilities.

Even then, his intervention was cautious. He and the American commander, Gen. John J. Pershing, decreed that U.S. troops would fight on their own, in discrete units, rather than be integrated into war-weary British and French divisions. (The British commander, Gen. Douglas Haig, felt this stricture was “ridiculous.”)



Pershing wanted to build a force strong enough to “push the enemy out of the trenches and force the fighting into the open,” and to do so with maximum use of artillery barrages and head-on assaults.

Edward Lengel’s book is valuable because he draws heavily upon German and French military records as well as those of the U.S. Army. And he concludes that much of what earlier historians have written about key events does not hold up.

Proud Marines surely will howl at his debunking of the century-old claim that the Third Marine Division “saved Paris” from capture during the battle of the Marne in July 1918. In fact, German records show that their target was in a secondary area and not intended to reach Paris. No matter; the Marines fought bravely and won.

He also dissects the Battle of Belleau Woods, often called the most significant “American victory” of the war. Such was based in large part upon a post-action “historical report” by Pershing’s historical staff that — to use Mr. Lengel’s words — “established, quite unapologetically, the ‘spin’ to be placed on the battle.” The report spoke disparagingly (and falsely) of the French, accusing them of cowardice. The report claimed, “No unit among [the French’s] entire front stood against the foe.” Pershing approved this false claim, Mr. Lengel states, to insure “that American military efforts were respected at the Versailles peace conference.”

The tragedy of the late U.S. entry into the war meant that the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), the first troops shipped to Europe, “lacked adequate machine guns and artillery, and was almost bereft of mortars, grenades, tanks and aircraft.” Ill-trained officers were “fixated on fighting conflicts like those against decrepit Spanish troops or Filipino and Mexican guerrillas.”

Training was especially painful in learning how to protect against German attacks with mustard and chlorine gas. Thousands of shells rained on American positions, to deadly effect. Men said to be “slightly gassed” were off the lines for weeks; many eventually died of blisters to the lungs and between their legs.

A good summation of Mr. Lengel’s thesis is contained in his account of the American-French attacks south of Soisson in July 1918. It is a harrowing rendition of the agonies endured by men who suffered a congeries of command woes, notably poor coordination between American soldiers and Marines and the French, who essentially did not communicate with one another.

Soldiers found themselves deployed hours too late to take advantage of artillery barrages, or waiting in vain for promised support by tanks and heavy weapons. They huddled in wheat fields under German machine gunfire. Ammunition was sparse, as low as 30 rounds per man. Casualties were stupendous — 1,300 of the 2,450 men in a Marine unit, for instance.

Here Mr. Lengel relies heavily upon oral histories of foot soldiers — collectively, the most harrowing accounts I’ve encountered in decades of reading military history. One constant was the continuing bravery of the individual soldier, who often charged German machine gun nests armed only with a bayonet.

One defect was the lack of real-time battlefield intelligence. American officers complained fruitlessly about French refusals to let them root out “spies operating in large numbers through all the villages,” apparently because of reluctance to bother local farmers. The French “had to be blamed” for the resultant casualties.

The Germans, for their part, treated the rules of warfare with disdain. They would dress as French surgeons, sporting Red Cross armbands, to infiltrate Allied lines. German-speaking American soldiers, in a show of battlefield innovation, used their linguistic skills to lure enemy soldiers into killing distance.

Discord with the French was constant (although Mr. Lengel points out that French-American soldiers did not appreciate what their weary allies had endured for years). Many French gripes were unfounded: for instance, that one of their divisions had been on-line for 60 days without a break, while an adjacent American division was relieved three times. Not the fault of the Americans, to be sure: the French were simply running out of manpower.

Ill feelings lingered until the final days of the war. In July 1918, the War Department cabled Pershing, “Report being spread that the French require Americans to pay rent for trenches occupied. Request statement of facts and explanation.” (Although Mr. Lengel does not say so, the rumor was false.)

In his final pages, Mr. Lengel emphasizes an important point. In World War I, American divisions went into combat only a few months after their arrival in France. “By contrast,” he writes, “the first comparable American military operation in World War II did not occur until June 6, 1944. Considered in that context, the doughboys performed extraordinarily well. They had nothing to hang their heads about.”

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 books, including “Korea: The Untold Story of the War” (McGraw-Hill).

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